By Eileen Jones
THERE’S a race called The Spine which runs along the entire 268-mile Pennine Way. In January. It’s in winter, so most of the race is spent in the dark, while floods, ice, snow and absurdly strong winds are all common. This year’s winner, ultra-marathon veteran Damien Hall, says: “Potentially fatal hypothermia is a regular did-not-finish cause. Grown men cry. Bones get broken. Some ‘Spiners’ have discovered trench foot isn’t just something that happened in France during World War I.”
But there was a bit of an outcry, a polite one but loud nevertheless, when it was declared that Damien had set a new record for the race this year. In fact, his time of three days, 12-hours, 36 minutes and 24 seconds, did beat the previous men’s record set by John Kelly. But the overall record remains that established by a woman, Jasmin Paris, in 2019: three days, 11hours, 12mins and 23 seconds.
Yet just a generation ago, women were barred from taking part in in hill and fell races, or at least, the longer ones. Race organisers were still labouring under the viewpoint of Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee: “Allowing women in sports would harm their feminine charm and degrade the sport in which they participated.”
This myth of female frailty was an unproven medical belief that strenuous sport would damage a woman’s body and make her infertile, says running historian and writer Steve Chilton. “It was even seriously considered by some, with extreme views, that women were born with a finite amount of energy and if they used it up on active sports, they would not have energy to give birth.”
So it’s entirely appropriate that Jasmin Paris, who actually has two children, and had given birth just 14 months before her record-breaking Spine run (during which she stopped to express milk for her baby)should write the foreword to Chilton’s latest book, Voices from the hills: Pioneering women fell and mountain runners(Sandstone Press). Building on his previous books, Chilton combines meticulous research with personal interviews to highlight those who paved the way for the gender quality we enjoy today, from the record breaking champions to those who played a quieter but equally important role behind the scenes.
Says Jasmin: “I’m immensely grateful to the women who paved the way for my generation to compete in fell races as equals with our male counterparts, free to run the same courses neck and neck, sharing the highs an lows, and ultimately the joy that time spent in the mountains brings.”
These are not high-profile, highly-sponsored athletes. Jasmin Paris works as a small animal vet specialising in Internal Medicine, in the teaching hospital at the University of Edinburgh, doing a mixture of clinical and research work. Time again again through these chapters, we read of women who could only train on their days off, or after long days at work. Vanessa Peacock, a formidable runner in her time, and hero of mine when I joined Clayton le Moors Harriers, says that she didn’t want to get too involved with competing for the British championship. “Fitting in ten races was a big commitment and I wouldn’t always get the time off work (she was a radiographer) to race. Generally it was nine to five work, but we had on-call and late shifts sometimes.”
The same applies to the men on the fells, of course, but the difference, back then, was recognition. Kathleen Connochie, who was the first woman to try and enter the Ben Nevis race in 1955, trained in secret, and her plan was almost scuppered by bureaucracy. At the last minute she was allowed to run – but had to set off two minutes after the other runners. “I still have the ladies’ washbag I was given as a prize. It is a treasured possession,” she says.
As one who was once awarded a box of bath cubes for coming second lady (we were ladies back then) in a fell race, my most treasured possession is a rather beautiful ceramic teapot for finishing first in the Haworth Hobble with my running partner Judy Sharples. The winning men were awarded a sculpted boot; that was a rare instance of gender balance tipping our way, aesthetically. As Carol Campbell, another of the pioneers, explains: “In the early days it was all about equal opportunities. What gives men, the race organisers, the right to say that women are not able to to participate in these events. We were more than capable. It was the same in teaching PE. If girls could run 1.5 miles cross country in the winter, why were they only allowed to run 800m and not 1500m on the track?”
Carol was described as a runner’s girlfriend when she came second in the Welsh 1000m race, behind Joan Glass, “the wife of Llanberis YH warden Dennis Glass. The wife/girlfriend tag is a form of downplaying or trivialising female performances,” says Chilton. And some 20 years after Kathleen Connochie’s run, Joan Glass was not allowed to take part in the official Ben Nevis race, but was the solo female setting off after the men. Another of the pioneers, Anne-Marie Grindley, the second woman to complete the Bob Graham Round, says that shorter races were organised alongside Lakeland classics “to pacify the women”. Though she notes that some race organisers “took the view that if you just put your initials on the entry form, they didn’t know if you were male or female.”
The first official women’s race under AAA laws was at Pendle Hill in 1977, but the race report was notable for some casual sexism: “On the ascent, pretty 18-year-old Kathryn Binns began to establish a good lead”. Other women were leading the way in demanding entry to the longer races, among them Ros Evans and Pauline Stuart, and Jean Lochhead who won the first Three Peaks race for women in 1979, and subsequently ran it several times “for fun”. She recalls: “One time, while crossing a deep bog between Pen-y-Gent and Whernside, I thought, I’ve not noticed that boulder there before, and leapt onto it, and my foot went through a dead sheep.” Female frailty?
It was Veronique Marot, who went on to be a London marathon winner, who broke the rules and opened the floodgates when she entered the 23 mile Ennerdale horsehoe race unofficially in 1979. “It wasn’t a feminist, striking a blow for women, kind of action. I was more doing it because someone had to start the ball rolling. Even at Ennerdale in 1979 some female athletes wanted to stop me running the full course.” She’s not shown in the results for that race, of course, but reckons her time was about five hours.
Chilton’s book is full of facts and stories and memories, of heroic running and exceptional determination. But perhaps the most memorable line in the whole narrative comes from Ruth Pickvance (who won a set of heated hair curlers when she came first in the Wasdale fell race), who went on to be British champion and to run, and win, races all around the world. “It’s been fascinating to look back over a lifetime of running – most importantly, I always feel that if you lose the poetry in it all you’ve lost the sense and point. It’s a bit like life, really. Running and life…don’t lose the poetry.”
Voices from the Hills is published by Sandstone on April 20
Header image: Ruth Pickvance